Postcards From Cambodia

The title of this blog is the name of a song by Bruce Cockburn. If you’ve never heard it before, give it a listen. The song speaks aptly of the many sights and sounds, and life, Mara and I experienced while being in Cambodia this last November.

 The flight was long, seventeen hours, but the layover in Narita, at the United Club, was a worthwhile break from the grind and prepared you for the next leg to Bangkok. From there it was but a quick hop to Siem Reap, Cambodia, Gateway to Angkor Wat. Low season was just about over. In about a month, the hordes of tourists would descend on this little town, bursting it at the seams. Mara hooked us up at a little B&B, ‘La Fromager’, that was off the main drag and quiet. A perfect little spot to view the frenetic pace of traffic and commerce. Really, just crossing the street there is like playing Russian roulette. There are no real rules of the road, but somehow the seeming chaotic, accident about to happen traffic patterns, flow swiftly without interruption. It’s a totally different scene than here in the states. You gotta laugh as tourists rent scooters and attempt to navigate the streets of Anytown, Cambodia. Yeah, we did it, too. There’s nothing like taking your life in your own hands. I have to admit that driving here would take a few years to get the hang of, if you survived that long.

 To go distances longer than you’d care to walk, forget the scooter and take a tuk-tuk. It’s cheap transportation, they’ll wait for you, and the best part is they drive!

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

 With Angkor Wat a fair distance from Siem Reap town, Mara and I, taking the advice of our driver, would arrive before dawn. Because Angkor Wat is so well restored one can begin exploring before the sun is fully up.  Nearly every stone surface has been carved, with rarely a blank wall. Hindu imagery collides with Buddhist creating a mind–boggling menagerie from massive stone heads twenty feet high, to a tiny Buddha image carved into an otherwise unnoticeable niche. Then there is everything in between.

 We used up every bit of our four-day pass visiting half a dozen other temples surrounding Angkor. These other Wats are not as restored and have a mystery all their own. Giant trunks of fig trees have grown through the walls, ceilings, and, well, pretty much everything.

 These places are huge. The moats surrounding them enclosed anywhere from fifty to one hundred acres. The Khmer population at around 900A.D. had to have been in the millions to build and maintain these monstrous undertakings. Of course, the fertile plains surrounding Angkor stretch as far as the eyes can see. And everywhere is rice, the lifeblood of a nation that is still sown and reaped by hand.

 History Cambodia’s got. From the ancient and much revered distant past all the way to the more recent bloody swath Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge tore through Cambodia in the late 70’s, not so very long ago. The Cambodians do not hide that particularly dark time as remnants of the killing fields and caves have been maintained and preserved. Not so much as a solemn remembrance of the past, but as a tourist attraction.  For the young tuk–tuk drivers, who will take you to hell and back again, the sights are just another stop on the tourist trek, much like the bat cave, the bamboo train, and the winery.  It’s strange and I wonder if they really understand what went down during the days of the Khmer Rouge. Does anyone?

The older fold remember. You can see it in their eyes, behind the smile. Fear. But life goes on. Monsoons come and go, flooding the rice fields and continuing the cycle.

Bamboo Train , Battambang, Cambodia

Bamboo Train, Battambang, Cambodia

 After about a week in Siem Reap we headed, by bus, to Battambang. It’s an old town with enough of its own history to generate a thriving bit of tourism. There are Angkor era monuments and enough Wats to do some serious temple hounding. Battambang is a bit of a hub for western Cambodia so there is a lot going on and worthy of a few days exploring and eating our way across town. With tourism not being the main point of Battambang’s existence, you get a good cross section of Cambodian life.  It may not all be beautiful, but it is real and fascinating. The working class is armed with their smile and are probably lucky just to have a job. Those not working are busy starving. Landmine victims hustle the dining tables at the edge of the street where they vie for space with homeless kids and hungry eyes.

 Cambodia is not for the squeamish. There is just too much reality going on here. Just how long can you hang cow parts in an open–air market at 90 plus degrees? Plus there are more parts to a cow, or any other meat for food than you can imagine. Restaurants advertise that they don’t serve dog, rat, cat, or birds. Nice of them to let you know, but if you are a meat eater, there’s a good chance you’ve already had some.

Dried Fish at Market

Dried Fish at Market

 After four or five days of a comfortable bed and hot showers at the Lux, it was time to catch a bus for the half­­–day ride to Phnom Penh. The main road to the capitol is a little off the tourist route. Most of the towns and villages economy revolved around agriculture, not tourism. The most obvious sign of this was that the stores only sold things you needed. No shiny new plastic or impractical clothing or trinkets. Fresh fish, dried fish, fermented fish, unknown fish, trays of deep-fried bugs, veggies, flip–flops, rubber boots, and tools. What more does one need? It was only as you closed in on Phnom Penh that you began to see stuff that you didn’t need, for sale; ridiculous clothes, a lot of cell phones, plastic things, cheap booze and hookers. And once in the city, that was all you could get.

 Phnom Penh rises from the rice paddies and surrounding country like a darkened parody of western life. Modern skyscrapers jut obscenely from the crumbling early twentieth century facades. The action is along the Mekong river waterfront. The quay teams with Cambodians and tourists wandering the well–lit concrete in search of something to do. One thing the evenings along the quay had to offer was a Cambodian version of public jazzercise set to hip–hop. A couple hundred locals with matching shirts squared off a section of concrete and did their thing. Smiling faces in various degrees of physical conditioning sweated it out. Why and how are good questions! Trying to put a happy face on a ghetto of crime? Then came the fireworks. The first salvo had about half the street ducking before they realized the explosions were for entertainment. A visible police presence keeps the black market discreet. The market for flesh not so much. Hookers abound with children in tow to satisfy one of the darkest tourist markets I have ever seen. Ex–pat Russians have taken a liking for Phnom Penh and seem to own the place. There is even a Russian market that is packed at night. Shoulder to shoulder insane shopping and eating. I think Mara and I spent more time trying not to lose each other than anything else.

 Daytime in Phnom Penh is hot and we would find ourselves working the shaded side of the streets. With a couple weeks of traveling under our belt, Mara thought a massage was in order. With massage parlors lining the waterfront we figured this to be a no brainer. After a few inquiries, we found that the place we were looking for was on the other side of town. You see, the parlors on the waterfront come with a ‘happy finish’. We found a place by the central post office where the massages were done by the blind. I must admit to being quite pleased at the end of the massage, if not happy too!

 The capitol city offers a plethora of attractions to occupy your time. Those of us who love old temples will not be disappointed. Many of the Wats have been restored or have restorations underway. The Royal Palace and grounds are being fixed at this time. The temples themselves are fantastic with a detail of construction that marvels the eye. Gold and the vibrant colors of the spectrum radiate from the repaired structures. The old ones like the Angkor era temples, 900 A.D. to around 1100A.D., are now bare rock when originally the were all painted and gem encrusted.

 Step ahead ten centuries and you have modern Cambodia. If the recent history is more your thing, any number of tours go to the many killing fields and bombed out rice paddies where the craters are still visible. You have the opportunity to view as many skulls recovered from the killing fields as one could possibly want.

Or, if you wish to wade in a little irony, you can take a half day ride to view some killing fields and then go feel what its like to create one. By that, I mean going to the shooting range and fire some extreme weaponry. Handguns, Ak-47’s, RPG’s, rocket launchers, sniper rifles, fifty caliber machines guns, and some ancient iron.

Where else could you get the chance to shoot this stuff! Cambodia! Something for everyone! Even our hotel room had a painting we had to cover with a sarong…

Modern Art - Phnom Penh

Modern Art in our Room – Phnom Penh.

 Is the country safe to visit? Absolutely! Travelling families were everywhere, from couples with toddlers to more mature family groups. Travelling in Cambodia is similar to other locations in Southeast Asia. As long as you don’t go out of your way to do anything stupid, you will be all right. A.K.A., if there are riots, stay near your hotel. Don’t poke the tiger. Health care, however, can be an issue. The rule of thumb is, anything beyond a minor cut should send you running to Bangkok for decent health services. Cambodia’s is sketchy and expensive. Best to get to Thailand, quick!

 Local food, café food, and street cart food was safe to eat and delicious. After a couple days eating lunch at one place, they will start to offer you more exciting local food to try. Take the chance and you will be delightfully surprised with your taste buds screaming for more.

 History, culture, food, agriculture, and natural beauty, yes I have to say again Cambodia has it all. In our two and a half weeks there, we had just scratched the surface of this marvelous place. There is little doubt that we will go there again and immerse ourselves ever deeper into Cambodia’s mystery and splendour.

 After a few days in the city, it was time to head out into the country again. This meant flying out of Phnom Penh to Krabi, Thailand. With more than a little reluctance, we headed by tuk–tuk to the airport, not knowing if life would bring us back again. We certainly hope so. Ahead, however, lay Thailand. It has been twenty years since being there. Change comes to everywhere and it should be interesting to see what the future has done with Krabi by the sea.

 Next: Thailand, culture shocked!

Advertisements

The Wheel Turns: A Matter of Safety

 

The windblast coming over the fairing would push your head back. White lines down the center of the road become a blur as you roll the throttle, pushing the rpm’s towards redline. A right hand sweeper is ahead. You tuck in, starting the bank for a high-speed corner.

A half hour before, at this same spot, a beater truck had a blow out sending it onto the graveled shoulder, the tires spitting a couple shovels full of crud onto the road. After affecting repairs, he returned to the road the same way he left it – spinning gravel.

After setting the line for the curve you hold tight. The world is coming past you at an insane rate. Gravel ahead, the front tire shifts to the left while the rear jumps to the right. SLAM! You’re down and sliding along with the machine. Rocks gouging your flesh before the asphalt rips your skin off. The bike flips and you’re flung to the side cracking your skull against a rock. Broken, bleeding, and your brain drips into the black surface of the road. You die, staring the bike wondering if she’ll start.

Road Ready!

 

 

It’s just a beautiful day, sun shining on that sparkly new scooter Amy just got to commute with. The little machine will save tons in gas money, easy to park and kind of fun and perky to ride. Flip flops, shorts, sunglasses, bikini top and sunscreen to protect her skin from the harmful rays. She was going to the beach to meet up with Janey and the girls then do some scootering along the waterfront. ‘It’ll be so much fun’ Amy was thinking just before being hit by a car that was exiting a fast food joint. The driver had a burger stuffed in his mouth and was trying to get the big gulp into the beverage holder that was too small for the cup. He looked away from the road to get the cola into the hole. When he looked up, it was to see Amy bouncing off the hood of his car. Amy won’t be going to the beach any more. The head trauma has left her a little slow and she drools now.

Here are two prime examples of how an accident happens. Sure, there are a million variations. But mostly, it was folk just out to have a good time. In both cases, neither rider had done anything really wrong, besides being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So what happened?

Kimo, our first rider, had been laughed at by his friends the first time he wore his new helmet and Day-Glo jacket with his new bike. Since then, he disregarded the advice given by the salespeople concerning protective gear and let his pals call the shots. None of his buds wore anything beyond a pair of cool shades.

Amy, though concerned about the side effects from too much sun, didn’t buy any safety equipment. The helmets were so big and the clothes so bulky. Not a very sexy, carefree look.

What is it about safety equipment that intelligent people shun? Amy would still be going to the beach if she just spent some of that gas money she saved on a helmet, any kind! There are enough brands with colors and styles to meet anyone’s expectations of cool and budget. Of course, the gear doesn’t work worth a damn if you don’t wear it, as Kimo unfortunately found out.

The phrase, ‘you don’t appreciate protective gear until you need it,’ comes to mind about now. That helmet and jacket don’t do anything if they are still hung in the closet. I, too, have been guilty of not wearing gear on short runs. To the store or post office, it’s just a few miles. The warm breeze blowing through your hair, ruffling your tee shirt and toes naked, catching a few rays. It felt good, fun. But the fun can stop pretty damn quick. It’s one thing to dump your bike, it happens. Scratched paint, bent stuff, basically customized by crash. A few grand into the bike and it’s now lying on the ground and you feel like shit. Your helmet has big gouge and fingertips of your gloves are ground through. The jacket kept your skin intact. Sure you’ll get a few nasty bruises in the next few hours and tomorrow you will really feel it. Right now you’ve got to shake it off and get the bike upright to access the damage. A new turn signal and handlebars are needed and you’ll learn to ignore to the damaged paint. The second most important thing is you learned is never to touch the front brake when on a loose surface such as gravel. The most important is that the safety gear lets you walk away from the crash, which beats an ambulance ride any day. And if there is a need for emergency care, you will have less damage than no gear at all.

 

Versatile motorcycle apparel also protects on levels you don’t think of. The elements, e.g. Yesterday my wife and I went for a cross-island ride to visit some friends. At home it was 85 degrees, sun shining with a light breeze. I think we both growled a little when we were putting on the riding suits. I mean it was soo nice out. Thirty miles into an eighty-mile run, the sky opened up and the rain started coming down. We pulled over, zipped up and pushed on, certain it would end soon. It didn’t. Coming over the volcano, the temperature dropped thirty degrees and it was getting downright cool. We knew it wouldn’t last. The temp that is. Dropping down the eastern face brought the mercury back up. There was nothing we could do about the rain but laugh.

Had we left that morning dressed for the sunny day we thought we had coming, the ride would have been aborted at thirty miles or been one miserable soaking wet and cold ride. I have seen it happen hundreds of times. You stop at the nearest convenience store and buy some garbage bags. Now we’re looking good.

The same goes for the reverse of weather conditions. It’s a blistering 100 degrees, not a cloud in the sky with the black road too hot to touch; you are riding in an oven. Your jacket and pants serve as a layer of protection against the sun’s rays. They’re also keeping the wind from sucking every drop of water out of your body.

It’s a win-win type of deal. From leather to textiles, there is safety motorcycle apparel for every budget and style, from one-piece jumpsuits to pants/jacket set. Mix and match, create your own look and let it be seen on the road.

All Suited Up!

 

 

 

I wear an Aerostitch One-piece Roadcrafter. They are made in America and considered the finest gear around. Cost is relative as the suits last for twenty years or more. For a long time I wore mis-matched gear, mostly knee-pads over jeans, sweatshirt, jean jacket, work gloves and ratty helmets. It was something and something is better than nothing. Times change and I saved to get the best I could buy.

Think about it! Wear it! What have you got to lose, a little pride, a few bucks? “It is better to lose a little face than leave it smeared along the road.” A couple hundred bucks on a helmet beats a couple hundred thousand dollars in medical bills.

Ride safely. Protect yourself.
Aloha!